When Scania first came to the land of sell, sell, sell, its U.S. competitors couldn't make heads or tails of the European truck maker's marketing approach.
Many expected its parent company, Saab-Scania AB of Sweden, would try to take the U.S. market by storm. In light of recent events, the expectation was altogether reasonable.Within just a few years, the Europeans had gained control of over one- third of the U.S. heavy-truck market. Daimler-Benz AG of Germany had bought Freightliner Corp., Volvo AB of Sweden had purchased assets of White Motor Corp., and Renault Vehicules Industriels of France had become the major shareholder in Mack Trucks Inc.
Some analysts expected the introduction two years ago of Scania trucks would make just as big a splash as the other European landings. But so far, Scania has hardly made a ripple.
The reason, say officials at Saab-Scania of America Inc. in Orange, Conn., is that the company is making its push in the United States gradually and very, very slowly.
The reason for the slow progress, according to Robert J. Sinclair, company president, is that Scania is working to build service and support for its trucks as it inches ahead to expand its dealer net.
"Thus, we are moving at a deliberately slow pace to insure that those Scania trucks now on the roads will receive the fullest of our attention should they require it," said Mr. Sinclair in a recent statement.
Right now, those Scania trucks on the road are few and far between. Last year, the company sold only about 150 units sold according to Jim Ventrilio, press information manager at Saab-Scania. But company officials have no apologies to make for the performance.
"Probably for the next two to three years at least, it's going to be slow going," Mr. Ventrilio concedes. But that candid forecast has little to do with the merit or quality of the product, he argues.
"You have to look at the effort that's being extended to sell trucks in this country," he says. "It's not a major effort by any stretch of the imagination."
So far, Scania has signed up just 16 dealers, primarily in the Northeast with one in Indiana. But as one of the world's largest heavy-truck manufacturers, Scania seems to be under no compulsion to move any faster in the U.S. market.
"The watchword around here is to burrow into the market very deliberately slowly, because we certainly can afford to do it that way," Mr. Ventrilio says.
The comparison that most quickly comes to mind is with the import history of Saab cars which first began appearing in this country about 30 years ago.
The first Saabs that Americans saw were a radical departure from what they had come to expect. The little cars had three-cylinders, two-cycle instead of four-cycle engines, front-wheel-drive, and were far and away the most economical cars on the road.
It took decades to build a following in the United States for Saab cars which still appeal to a relatively small but devoted segment of the market.
Mr. Ventrilio points out that Scania trucks are nowhere near as alien by design as the early Saabs, but they do have certain distinct differences from familiar U.S. makes.
Scania trucks take driver comfort and productivity as a primary mission. Visibility, seating, ventilation, instrumentation, noise and shock isolation, and safety are all obvious design priorities at least equal to that of moving freight.
Scania models aren't custom-built to individual specification to the same degree as most U.S. heavy trucks. But some of the options that Scania does offer aren't like U.S. options either.
Last year, Scania introduced a computer-aided gear changing option which automatically chooses the best gear for a manual transmission when the driver steps on the clutch. Such features may still seem futuristic to most of the U.S. heavy truck market, but the marketing also is oriented more toward future sales than the big splash here and now.
"You have to gain acceptance in the market by the people who use the trucks," Mr. Ventrilio says. "We're making more sales, but everything happens slowly."